I’m really enjoying doing the recent Writing Excuses exercises. I used a couple to develop Friday’s story, and with it a whole world for future stories of magic in the Wild West. So, skipping over a wildcard week to let me catch up, it’s time for the exercise from episode 10.7:
Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV.
Of the characters from the previous exercise, I’ve since used the most popular one in a story, so I’m going to use the other character who drew some favourable comments – Sarah the escaped slave. Here’s the original version of her journey through the market:
Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.
That leaves me with only two other characters mentioned, one of whom isn’t in the scene, so I’ll move the viewpoint to the stall-holder. Same scene, different point of view, and more words this time…
Marcus could see the sheriff and his deputies eyeing him across the marketplace. Most white folks didn’t like to see a black man with a business of his own, even if that man’s business was a ramshackle market stall selling cheap pots and pans to folks who couldn’t afford no better. If they’d only known Marcus’s real business, they’d have hated him a whole lot more. That hate made Marcus proud.
A woman walked across the marketplace, huddled in a ragged dress and a heavily patched shawl. Her wrists and ankles were carefully covered, and Marcus reckoned he knew what sort of scars lay underneath. Chains weighed heavy and manacles scraped skin.
Stopping at the stall, she looked at his wares without really seeing them, eyes darting nervously. Then she dropped a slip of paper into a cup at the corner of the stall, and Marcus recognised Seneca’s writing on the outside. Just like he’d thought, another fugitive making for the railroad – not the one of cold steel, but the one of warm hearts and desperate hopes.
The sheriff was approaching, casting a suspicious glance toward the oblivious young woman. As she walked away Marcus whistled a hymn. At this signal, Old Sam and Meredith Brown started again on the game of chequers they had going in the shelter of the stall. As they moved the chipped pieces, folks around the market took sudden sidesteps they’d never expected to. A butcher and a labourer knocked into each other, exchanged angry words, and a fight broke out. The sheriff turned to break it up, as the young woman disappeared from view.
Marcus took the piece of paper from the cup and slipped it into his pocket for later.
Reflecting on the exercise
I originally meant to make this as short as the original scene, but once I started I felt I needed more words to do a different character justice, to show both what was distinctive about him and what’s distinctive about the setting. I can see these two characters taking a story of escaped slaves in very different directions – one putting her effort into escape, the other into keeping things moving while evading the law. And both clearly have a place in that story.
What was also interesting was how this exercise in shifting perspective generated other characters. I needed someone to represent the threat of the law, and someone to work the magic at the end. Showing character required a story, which generated more characters, filling more of the niches discussed in this episode of Writing Excuses.
Did anybody else try this exercise? How did you get on? These are really interesting exercises to do, and if you aren’t already I really recommend giving them a try. You can find all the exercises and related episodes over at Writing Excuses.